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DESCENDANTS, THE (director/writer: Alexander Payne; screenwriters: Nat Faxon/Jim Rash/based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings; cinematographer: Phedon Papamichael; editor: Kevin Tent; cast: George Clooney (Matt King), Shailene Woodley (Alexandra King), Beau Bridges (Cousin Hugh), Robert Forster (Scott Thorson, Matt’s father-in-law), Judy Greer (Julie Speer), Matthew Lillard (Brian Speer), Nick Krause (Sid), Amara Miller (Scottie King), Mary Birdsong (Kai Mitchell), Rob Huebel (Mark Mitchell), Patricia Hastie (Elizabeth King); Runtime: 115; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Jim Burke/Alexander Payne; Fox Searchlight; 2011)

“Surprisingly warm feel good film about coping with a tragic loss.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Alexander Payne (“About Schmidt”/”Sideways”/”Election”) directs this pathos-filled dramedy about a wealthy lifelong Hawaiian resident and workaholic real estate lawyer, Matt King (George Clooney). When his wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) lies in an irreversible coma in a Honolulu hospital after a motor boat accident, Matt is forced to atone for not being there for his wife and for being a neglectful dad to his spoiled potty-mouth ten-year-old daughter Scottie (Amara Miller) and his bellicose druggie seventeen-year-old daughter Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) he sent to an exclusive boarding school to learn how to behave.

It’s co-written by Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, and is based on the 2007 novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings.

This surprisingly warm feel good film about coping with a tragic loss takes place over about a week’s time. It revolves around the flawed passive Matt trying to be a good parent, who makes a genuine effort to get things right after the accident acts as a wake-up call that things are amiss in his life. Matt makes an effort to connect with his difficult daughters, calling himself the “backup” parent because of his inexperience as a father. While Matt is downcast to learn from the doctors his wife can’t be saved, he earnestly says his goodbyes to his wife knowing that she will be taken off life support in a few days due to an agreement she previously signed that gave her doctors permission to do so if they determined things were hopeless.

Matt wishes to tell his relatives and the couple’s friends about the decision so that they could say their farewells at the hospital. He first visits his stern father-in-law Scott Thorson (Robert Forster), who is unfairly abusive toward Matt and blames him for the accident. Scottie and Alexandra are brought along, but Alexandra comes only on the condition she can bring her stoner boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause) along. Sid, around for comic relief, is so dense and goofy, he can’t help blurting out the wrong thing and upsetting the adults with ill-advised comments and smirks.

When Alex informs her clueless dad that his wife is having an extra-marital affair, which she explains as the reason for her recent antagonism to mom, the bewildered Matt is filled with pain at being cuckolded and just wants to meet the person she made love to. After tracking down that the lover is a real estate guy named Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard), Matt runs across him vacationing with his wife Julie (Judy Greer) and kids on the nearby island of Kauai and awkwardly meets him.

Besides dealing with these stressful personal situations, Matt is the trustee for land held by his large Hawaiian family. It’s a family whose presence on the islands dates back to 1860, at a time of the first white settlers. The family owns 25,000 acres of pristine waterfront property in Kauai that hotel developers are willing to pay big money for and within a week a decision must be made on whether to sell or to keep protecting the property from those who will exploit it as a prime tourist spot. The sale would bring a fortune to Matthew and his many relatives, who are mostly all for the sale. One relative, the crafty unsophisticated intemperate Cousin Hugh (Beau Bridges), vows to take on Matt when he decides to go against the majority and reject the sale. Also, Matt gets his revenge on Brian by not doing the deal and thereby denying his rival a large real estate fee for handling the transaction.

The pic gives us an un-touristy everyday look at Hawaii and lets us see through the myth of life on the islands being equated with living in paradise. Clooney gives a pitch-perfect nuanced performance as a self-effacing decent guy who must learn to bond with his angry children, make his peace with his unfaithful deceased wife and confront his unhappy greedy cousins over a windfall land deal that doesn’t go down. Thanks to the film’s great location shots, its leisurely pace that allows for observation and the superb acting from the terrific ensemble supporting cast, the slight narrative sidesteps falling into soap opera turf. Though there’s not much of a story, it at least keeps things plausibly real and allows us to freely connect with its diverse characters without realizing how much we were manipulated by the filmmaker.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”